Nude Fringe plays, travel grants and the conservative agenda


Hat tip to Marianne Combs for posting on Facebook the latest attack on artists by Tom Steward from, who, you may remember was the guy that also wrote a blog post that decried artist travel stipends, which got picked up by KSTP and eventually incited the Minnesota Legislature to change the laws surrounding Minnesota State Arts Board funding. Because of what went down last spring, artists may no longer receive State Arts Board funding for study out of state, and arts organizations may not use State Arts Board funding to bring in out of state artists. Yay! Steward’s latest rant is about a Fringe play by Natalie Rae Wass about growing up with a nudist family, which, god forbid, contains nudity. 

Now, as any Fringe-goer, theater lover or really any arts appreciator will tell you, Steward’s feigned shock that taxpayer money is going toward a festival where one of the 176 plays contains nudity seems silly and downright childish. Has he been to the MIA? Last time I checked there were quite a few naked ladies in there. But no matter how plebeian we find his post, Minnesota artists and lovers would be wise not to ignore him.

While Watchdog may call itself an “investigative news site,” it’s actually the propaganda arm for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization that was started by $2 million in seed money from the conservative Sam Adams Alliance, according to the Columbia Review of Journalism. Watchdog received 95 percent of its 2011 funding from Donor’s Trust, which receives funding from Koch-supported foundations, according to the Center for Public Integrity.  Among its Advisory board members are Tucker Carlson and folks from the National Review and the Washington Examiner.

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity also was a sponsor of the 2011 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Annual Conference, according to, and its Executive Director, Jason Steverak, its Vice President of Journalism Steven Greenhut and board member (and North Dakota Republican Representative) Blair Thoreson have all written op-eds defending ALEC. Thorseon, in addition, chairs ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force, SourceWatch states.

As you probably know, ALEC is a powerful national organization that creates model bills that can be replicated at the local level all across the country. ALEC has largely been blamed for the Voter I.D. and Stand Your Ground laws that have been passed in various states, for example.

Look, we have free speech in this country, and with Citizens United, there is absolutely no limit to how much money conservatives can throw at these operations. In fact it’s not or the Franklin Center that bothers me so much. It’s the fact that KSTP ran with essentially the same story, with as its source, with no explanation of the kind of source Watchdog is.

When Steward attacked out-of-state travel, our legislators cowered in fear at the thought of being seen as spending frivolously.  Even Senator Richard Cohen, who helped write the Legacy Amendment, was quoted in the initial blog post as saying that he felt the travel stipends were “a bit far afield,” and that artists should rather seek funding from places like the McKnight Foundation. (By the way, the McKnight Foundation’s Vickie Benson has a masterful defense of state funding for travel — worth reading, if you haven’t seen it.)

Sheila Smith, the executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, sent out an email after the law was changed, giving this disappointing explanation for their lack of action.

“We have to admit to those who are not familiar with the arts community in Minnesota it may be difficult to explain why a foreign trip for one person can benefit the state as a whole. And that was the problem. Coming late in session, with the bullhorn provided by TV, there was no time to explain the nuanced process or goals of travel in this program.  As the controversy blew up, with outcry on both the House and Senate floors, even our friends at the legislature saw the danger to the Individual Artist program and to the whole arts appropriation. The tempest was so quick and loud that rational discourse on the merits was not possible. So our legislative friends had to agree to the travel restrictions to make sure they protected the individual artist program, and by extension arts funding as a whole.”

The Democrats’ inability to stand up to the bullies, and the MCA’s inability to swiftly nip this in the bud is disheartening, and it makes me wary that more such attacks are soon to come.

As for Steward’s anti-nudity piece, it’s true it’s ludicrous. There’s been nudity at the Fringe since the beginning, and of course we can’t censor artists and besides, Natalie Rae Wass is actually one of the most wholesome people on earth and her show about growing up with parents who are nudists isn’t even about being sexy. But none of that matters, because what this is really about is that they want to dismantle the whole Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which Minnesotans have already passed into the constitution.

Conservatives don’t care if you don’t like what they think. Do you think Rush Limbaugh cares if liberals find flaws in his arguments, and/or call him out for his inconsistencies? He doesn’t, because it’s never about one particular argument. It’s about the long game. It’s about winning.

It’s the death by a thousand cuts strategy. This spring they got rid of the travel stipends. Now here we have Steward making the case against the Fringe Festival. His case is so ludicrous that most of us aren’t paying attention, but just you wait.

What can you do? Well, it’s possible that a protest at the legislature may be needed eventually, but before we get to that point, why don’t you take a moment and call your representative. Say, “Hey, I think it was really stupid that you changed the law so people can’t receive Arts Board funding to study or attend conferences in other states, and I really hope you bring it back and make sure that no more funny business happens with our sacred arts dollars, which the people of Minnesota voted in an amendment to support.”